Book of Mormon (Politically Correct?) Stories

January 13, 2011 | 44 comments
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Aztec_drums,_Florentine_Codex.I was recently called to teach the 10 & 11 year olds in Primary. They’re a great class — smart kids and good energy. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy listening to (and singing) the Primary songs.

Last week we sang every kid’s favorite Primary standby, “Book of Mormon Stories” (well, it’s either that, “Popcorn Popping”, or “The Oxcart”…I think we sang “The Oxcart” as our opening song for every FHE for eight years straight). Everyone was doing the hand motions, but when we got to, “are about the Lamanites in ancient history,” I noticed that only about half the teachers and students did the old “Indian feathers” two fingers behind the head.

Now, I know that there are plenty of good reasons not to do the feathers, and I expect they’ll be culturally phased out in the next decade or so, so I was wondering if this change is a local or global phenomenon. Any other Primary teachers out there ready to investigate and report the status of “Indian feathers” hand signs in your local Primaries? Any suggestions on a hand motion that could be used to replace them?

44 Responses to Book of Mormon (Politically Correct?) Stories

  1. James Olsen on January 13, 2011 at 12:21 am

    I was recently called to teach primary as well (covering the 9-10 yr olds now) and heartily second your comments – spastic but also enthusiastic, and like almost any group I’ve had the privilege of teaching in the church, they absolutely devour substantive lessons.

    I can confirm that in my San Diego ward, the half-hearted two fingers is the norm.

    And what’s “The Oxcart”? I’ve never heard of that one!

  2. Cameron N on January 13, 2011 at 12:44 am

    So many “indegenous” cultures in the Americas and the Pacific Islands had feathers, it’s a safe assumption and harmless.

    I still remember a man I met in Washington state a while back on a reservation who told me he preferred to be called an Indian. Just like African Americans prefer to be called black. I hate political correctness, it is a movement designed to dissuade sharing opinions by making people offenders for a word.

    All this said, I am neutral as to feathers. My level of enthusiasm in nursery music time is highly dependent on my energy/sleep level and the state of my class, so I’d imagine primary is similar. =)

  3. makakona on January 13, 2011 at 12:50 am

    also in san diego, but i’ve never seen anyone but my mother-in-law (who has “mammy and pappy” salt and pepper shakers) do the two fingers. i’m a convert of 13 years.

  4. Dane Laverty on January 13, 2011 at 1:17 am

    Cameron N, if you add “some” in front of “African Americans”, then I think you might have a point. It’s a sticky issue, and I doubt that there’s any solution that would make everyone happy.

    James & makakona, I like that you both mention that being from San Diego. In your experience, is the urban church experience different from the suburban or rural church experience?

  5. Merkat on January 13, 2011 at 1:48 am

    You think San Diego is urban? Not most areas! And I would wager, yes, having moved from the suburbs to an urban stake in southern CA. When I was in Primary for a year, they never sang this song…not sure why.

  6. Ben Park on January 13, 2011 at 3:17 am

    I hadn’t given this song and its actions any thought for years until we sang it with my daughter last week and both my wife and I turned to each other with the look, “Holy Crap, I hadn’t realized how blatantly politically incorrect this is!” Don’t know how they handle it in the ward, though, as our daughter just turned nursery age.

  7. Stan Beale on January 13, 2011 at 5:15 am

    As an old Sociology teacher, I always cringe when a discussion of political correctness arises. Too many people dismiss it as being ridiculous. The most common way seems to involve using a reductio ad absurdum argument (e.g. the inanity of a city using “personhole” instead of “manhole” to describe an access opening). In so doing, they miss the point.

    Mathew 7:12 should be our guidepost. In modern lexicon it is “Treat others like you would want to be treated yourself.” There is a plethora of English words and phrases that are insulting or demeaning to a particular group or groups. We would not like similar words used about us. Thus, common decency, not a loaded term like “politically correct” should lead us to not use those negative words and phrases about others.

    Three problems often make it difficult to say or do the right or best thing:
    1. We do not know that the word or words are not appropriate.
    In the U.S. for example, we often conflate men and girls, not
    realizing the psychological significance of the distinction.
    2. The offended group may use the words or terms themselves.
    Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill used to spend many an afternoon
    telling Irish jokes to one another. Two old Irishmen
    swapping stories is alright. Two Englishmen telling “Paddy”
    and “Seamus” stories is probably not well rerceived by the
    Sons and Daughters of the Old Sod.
    3. We do not think. We may not know why it is not politically
    correct to say or not say something and just dismiss it
    as something tht is stupid. In the African American community
    for decades there was a distinction between “brown” and
    “black.” Those people with lighter skin had a better chance
    of being hired and gaining social entre to “polite”
    society. There was an old saying, “If you’re black stay
    back, if you’re brown stick around.” White people by their
    actions or words could exacerbate this tension and not
    understand why.

    I wish I could say that I was omniscient and never fell victim to any of these pitfalls, but it would not be true. Following Mathew 7:12 is not easy and needs constant work.

  8. Katie on January 13, 2011 at 7:07 am

    I am the Primary pianist. We do not do the Indian feathers, but we haven’t come up with anything better, either.

  9. jeans on January 13, 2011 at 7:56 am

    I recoil at the Indian feathers. Although Cameron thinks it’s harmless, it’s not. It’s in line with the tomahawk chop and other mindlessly insulting Indian gestures that sports fans use. We can treat our Native American members better than stereotyping them in settings that are supposed to be inclusive.

    I think our music leader came up with a solution, using the sign language sign for “Lamanites” which is a letter L placed near the mouth and then near the ear. Don’t know if this really advances things, since (as Christopher Bradfield points out in Let Us Reason some years ago), it makes a connection with a North American geography of the Book of Mormon (at least, the connection might be assumed if you are ASL-fluent). But for most LDS children today the replacement sign will come across as racially neutral. Which I think is an improvement.

  10. Amy on January 13, 2011 at 8:23 am

    I also think that depending on where you live in the country, there are different motions. We’ve never had any two-finger Indian thingy gestures. I am not familiar with that.

    I do have to take small issue with the sports topic, jeans, being from Florida. I hope you will not ban me from your beginnings new site. ;)
    FSU fans have the full support of the Seminole and Miccosukee Indian tribes, who designed the pregame rituals, Chief Osceola’s uniform worn by the mascot, the face paint, and work with the boosters. When the NCAA tried to ban the “Seminole” nickname, they freaked out and an emergency hearing had to be called to reverse the decision.

  11. Brian-A on January 13, 2011 at 8:51 am

    The last time our Primary in an urban US Midwest ward sang Book of Mormon Stories, most of the Junior Primary children enthusiastically made all the hand signs, despite no one remembering when the children would have learned the gestures. The adults were scandalized enough that the song has not been sung in the three years since.

  12. mapinguari on January 13, 2011 at 8:51 am

    The two-finger feather sign is alive and well in my ward in southeastern Virginia. I cringed mostly because of the connotation that north american indians are the primary descendants of the Lamanites. My wife told me to forget it and let the kids have their fun.

  13. Dan on January 13, 2011 at 9:07 am

    the feather thing, isn’t that an “American” Native American thing? In other words, it’s not a Mayan thing, right? The preponderance of evidence points to the events of the Lamanites coming from Mayan areas. Maybe we could borrow some symbolism from the Mayan culture instead of Great Plains Native Americans.

  14. M. Buxton on January 13, 2011 at 10:14 am

    As an American Indian, I am not personally offended by the two-fingered feathers thing, but I can see how it would make people uncomfortable. Haven’t been in a primary sharing time for years, so I am not sure how they do it in my suburban D.C. ward. More broadly, I want to second Stan’s thoughtful comments about common decency. I think people too often take offense when none is indended, but I also think that operating with willful blindness about what might offend others is not fulfilling our obligations as disciples of Christ. We won’t always do it perfectly, as Stan suggests, but we can no doubt do better.

  15. Dane Laverty on January 13, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Thank you Stan and M. Buxton. There’s no reason to offend people when it’s just as easy for us not to.

    Brian-A, that’s definitely one solution to the problem :)

  16. Cheryl on January 13, 2011 at 10:59 am

    I agree that the old hand motions with the first 2 verses seem inappropriate – and having taught sign language in primary music before I wish that the appropriate sign language for ALL the verses – not just the first two be taught!!!!!!

  17. Julie M. Smith on January 13, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Stan, I really appreciate your comment. Thank you.

  18. Jones on January 13, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Stan, the best alternative to _manhole_ is _utility hole_. That is what it is. Part of the impetus for avoiding labels like _manhole_ is that they negate the women who also work. There is no excuse to continue to use _fireman_ and _policeman_ when women are a significant percentage of those occupations. I like your suggestion for common decency.
    Our ward in Texas uses the two fingers. I also cringe but have learned to _pick my battles_.

  19. Jeremy on January 13, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Excellent comment, Stan. I just have a bit to add.

    I fear we’ve brought up a whole generation of kids who do not understand the importance and the consequences of words and word choice. Freedom of speech does not mean that words are beyond reproach. 99% of the time, “political correctness” simply means “respect.” We recently had an incident here in my Utah County ward in which some youth were using a blatantly racist term while playing a game. (It involved throwing Brazil nuts at each other; except they weren’t calling them Brazil nuts.) When some of us intervened to tell the kids that wasn’t acceptable, the teens immediately started complaining about being “shut down by the political correctness police.” This seems too often to be a knee-jerk reaction, one that kicks in far faster than any pause for self-reflection can.

    It seems to me that, as a Church with complicated racial issues–we have global aspirations, but for the first five years of my life Africans could not hold the priesthood–we of all people should strive to be beyond reproach when it comes to the ways we talk about or depict people of non-white ethnicity. Would it not be wiser to take someone at their word when they say that we’ve said something racially offensive, rather than engage in an argument about whether they’re justified in being offended or not? When eternal doctrines and fundamental issues of right and wrong are not at stake, is “We’ve always done it this way and we don’t want to change” ever a compelling justification for a particular behavior?

    Now, more to the point of the “finger feathers.” This is a silly action that perpetuates both clumsy racial caricatures and questionable doctrine. Why keep doing it, except, ironically, to avoid offending the sensibilities of the anti-P.C. crowd?

    Of course, as far as I’m concerned, we should get rid of the whole song, because frankly the visual stereotypes of the hand actions are simply extensions of the aural stereotypes in the music. The big, drummy, open fifths in the left hand and the pentatonic melody are themselves awful cliches. That’s the music that Westerners always use to identify the “Other”; that very same music could just as easily be the product of insular white people imagining China, Japan, or Southeast Asia.

  20. jjohnsen on January 13, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    I still use the two fingers. Of course it’s the two fingers of the devil horns because it cracks me up when my wife rolls her eyes while I do it.

  21. Stan Beale on January 13, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Jones: My ego said you missed my point. But upon reading my comments again, I realized I had screwed it up by explaining too little.

    One of my former students had graduated from college with a degree in City Management. One of her first jobs was to help clear up sexist language commonly used in her cities’ documents. The big mistake that her group made was in creating new words (personhole) rather than using existing words (utility hole). As a result, the list they crafted became a political correctness joke in the newspapers. The colunist who wrote the story only mentioned the created or awkward words and had great fun with them as you could imagine.

  22. Carol on January 13, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    We don’t do the two fingers thing in our Primary, and I and SO glad.

  23. Ellis on January 13, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    I have often wondered why the hand motions were needed in the first place.

  24. jjohnsen on January 13, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    Hand motions and sign language have been added to a lot of songs in Primary. I find it annoying.

  25. Suleiman on January 13, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    As a person with Amerindian family members, the finger thing should go away. It is culturally insensitive, ethnocentric and myopic. It is also unscriptural: Is there a verse in the BoM describing Lamanites as wearing feathers in their hair?

    The 2 Nephi description of Lamanites as an “idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey” really sounds more like a group of bow hunters that I know which hangs out at Cabela’s… but I digress.

  26. Scott B. on January 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    merkat (5), where in SoCal do you live?

    In my part of SoCal (Irvine/Newport Beach), the two-fingered hand motions are apathetically applied by only a few; most don’t even bother trying to hide their lack of disdain for it.

  27. Alison Moore Smith on January 13, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    James #1:

    The Oxcart

    Here comes the oxcart, oh, how slow!
    It’s pulled by an ox, of course, you know.
    The wooden wheels creak as they roll along.
    Creak, creak, creak, creak, is there song.

    Classic.

  28. Bro. Jones on January 13, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    I’m with Jeremy (#19): the feathers are the least of the problem with a song that sounds like a 1920s vaudeville introduction to a “Cowboys ‘n Indians” comedy sketch. I say lose the whole song.

    Also, my last two wards where I was in Primary (suburban Chicago and suburban DC) did both feathers and the stupid arm-folding/head-nodding gesture.

  29. Alison Moore Smith on January 14, 2011 at 12:52 am

    Now, more to the point of the “finger feathers.” This is a silly action that perpetuates both clumsy racial caricatures and questionable doctrine.

    I understand the “questionable doctrine” part, but not the “racial caricatures.”

    A caricature is “a picture, description, etc., ludicrously exaggerating the peculiarities or defects of persons or things.” I don’t see how two fingers behind the head — indicating wearing feathers in the hair — can remotely be called a “ludicrous exaggeration.”

    Of course, not all Native Americans (or whatever term you deem appropriate) wore feathers, but certainly lots of them did. And I don’t think it’s some defect, is it? When I was a kid I always wanted to be the Indian, not the cowboy, because the Indians had THE coolest costumes. I wanted to be a boy scout because I was so jealous of the Order of the Arrow boys with the full headdress. Gorgeous!

    I don’t find it much different than, say, indicating that pioneer women wore bonnets. Or cowboys speak witha drawl, wear boots with spurs, or — yikes! — are bow-legged. I see that depiction all the time and no one gets their knicker in a twist over it, even though that COULD be seen as making fun of a defect.

  30. Darren on January 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Seems to me we should worry more about what offends the spirit of God and not what is “politically” correct. Different folks in the church are at different spiritual levels and what may be offensive spiritually for a spiritually refined member may not be offensive to one that is struggling with deep rooted addiction…. We should not judge or make others feel unwelcome by things they do, and unless it is a serious problem we should sometimes bite our tongues and let the spirit work on each individual as they become sanctified.

  31. Brad Dennis on January 14, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Yes I second the decision to just do away with the song altogether. The song is already stereotypical of Native American music.

  32. Brad Dennis on January 14, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Also, political correctness is important and isn’t at the same time. We should always be aware of how we say things based on the environment that we are in. Just like you will take offense to certain terms that people may use for Mormons, avoid using terms that may offend someone else.

    But there do exist PC Nazis who are mainly just annoying (e.g. those who insist on using “she” as the referential particle for person instead of “he”, “he or she,” or “she or he”). But there are no cases of someone getting arrested and prosecuted for not being PC, and few if any cases of people getting sued (OK maybe for using the n-word, but not “manhole”). Its probably more of an ethical question than a legal one.

  33. SUNNofaB.C.Rich on January 14, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    next people are going to complain about naming U.S. Army helicopters after indian tribes…

  34. Jeremy on January 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Alison,

    One of the things that is most racially insensitive about many popular depictions of Native Americans is that not only do such depictions employ exaggerations, but they also lump exaggerated characteristics of various distinct groups all together and treat them as if they are one undifferentiated group. Think of how we Mormons roll our eyes when someone conflates us with the Amish, for example–or how we get our “knickers in a twist,” as you put it, when someone fails to distinguish between us and polygamists. Imagine yourself in a crowd of non-Mormons, and some uninformed person started shooting off at the mouth about how Mormons had multiple wives and weren’t allowed to use electricity or zippers. If you were to pipe up and set the record straight, someone might well roll their eyes at you and mutter something about you being the “Political Correctness Police.” Which would be another way of saying: “Who cares whether you’re not Amish? I sure don’t. And it doesn’t bother me in the least if that offends you.”

    That’s the message that is conveyed when popular culture conflates the finger feathers (representing, ostensibly, the highly ceremonial and sacred ornaments earned through valor by some Plains Indians), calumets (the so-called peace pipes variously used in various, often sacred ways, by a number of different tribes), tipis, war paint, Navajo rugs, etc.

    And it’s not just a matter of articulating identity in a more precise way. Clumsily thinking of all Native Americans as “all the same” was one of the main problems at the core of our government’s disastrous policies towards Native Americans in the 19th century. (This is a clumsy comparison, but imagine if Utah’s disputes with the U.S. government hadn’t gone so well, and Mormons had been forced to walk thousands of miles at gunpoint to share a chunk of land with some Mennonites…)

    But all of that aside, it seems to me that as a super-white Church with a problematic racial past, would it really be that big a sacrifice for us to err on the side of respect for other ethnicities?

  35. Cynthia L. on January 16, 2011 at 1:44 am

    Jeremy, you’re a saint.

  36. Karen H. on January 16, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Jeremy, thank you. You managed to express what I could not but wanted to.

  37. Reese Dixon on January 16, 2011 at 11:03 am

    “spastic but also enthusiastic”

    Since we’re talking political correctness, let me take this moment to mention that Spastic is another one to avoid as it refers to the uncontrollable jerking movements of someone with a type of cerebral palsy – Spastic Quadriplegia.

    I was unaware of it myself until I had a son with Spastic Quadriplegia, and now when I hear “Oh man, I’m such a spaz” from one of the YW, it’s not so funny.

    I actually still use spastic, and would have used it in just the same way as the comment I quoted – to describe a literal jerking movement – but Spaz is no better than Retard. Just less known.

    This message was brought to you by Busybody Moms Avoiding Getting Ready for Church.

  38. Eric Russell on January 16, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Jeremy, the analogy doesn’t hold on a couple of levels. There are no negative connotations associated with feathers and there is no claim, even implicitly, that Native Americans are “all the same.”

    The best analogy would be if a children’s song that spoke of Mormons symbolized them with a hand signal that represented pioneer wagons. Of course, not all Mormons crossed the plains in covered wagons, in fact, relatively few did. But it would be a strain to characterize the symbol as offensive.

  39. Bob on January 16, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Jeremy: we all have and use stereotypes. I think I courted six of your’s in yor comment. They are bad if the hurt others. But it is natural to order different things into one groups.

  40. Bob on January 16, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Sorry__Your and group is better.

  41. Jeremy on January 17, 2011 at 12:54 am

    Eric and Bob:

    I don’t think you grasped what I was saying. Conflationary caricature does not have negative connotations to be offensive; the conflationary impulse is itself insensitive. (And in the particular case of the feathers: they are quite sacred and ceremonial in some cultures.)

    But I left out what should have been the most compelling part of my comment: the things I mentioned are things that Native Americans find offensive. That’s enough for me.

  42. Merkat on January 18, 2011 at 2:03 am

    Scott B (26), I’m in LA. Right smack in the heart of LA. FWIW, I think that I enjoyed doing the hand motions as a child and never thought about it, even being raised in a liberal family.

  43. palerobber on January 18, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Cameron N #2

    I still remember a man I met in Washington state…

    well how could you ever forget such a convenient prop?

    hey, if you don’t want to use terms of respect then don’t. but then don’t complain about it making you look uncouth in the eyes of others.

  44. Oatmeal on January 23, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Alison #29,

    Yeah, but cowboys had the guns and won the wars. And that is the point… Should a predominantly white culture stereotype another culture?